What if you could start the day and know immediately what to do first? What if you could be sure that the first thing was the best thing?

We live in a world of infinite choice. One “cat video” leads to another, and another. Pretty soon, it’s noon. It happens more often than you think. Something similar may be happening to you.

The secret to avoiding the time bandits is to identify worthy activities and get started on them. Inertia is strong. When we’re involved in the time wasters, it’s hard to tear ourselves away and worth on the important stuff. But when we’re involved in the important work, when we’re in a state of “flow,” we don’t want to stop.

Put everything away before the end of the day. Start with the paper.

You’ll never get it all done. That’s a good thing. How miserable it would be to have no purpose, nothing to excite you about the day ahead. Ideas spawn other ideas. Success allows you to play in a bigger game. More people become interested in what you have to offer. As you accomplish worthy tasks and see worthy projects to their conclusions, other exciting tasks and projects appear.

Our goal is not to get it all done, but to get it all under control. You’re comfortable giving 100% of your focus to the task at hand because you know what else is asking for your time. It all starts with taking everything that’s laying around, making decisions about what to do with it, and putting it in your system.

  • Clear the paper and any other physical items from your desk. If there’s something that requires action, put it in the Tickler File. If not, file it in your reference system. Return books to the shelf. Every item on your desk serves as a distraction from the task at hand. Having a clean workspace allows you to focus on one thing at a time.
Clean Desk
Clean Desk. You can do this!
  • Clear the Inbox, Outbox, and Pending. Decide what the papers in the Inbox mean to you. Need to see it in the future? Put it in the Tickler File with a sticky note attached as to the action to take. Add tasks to your task list as appropriate. File, refer to someone else, or toss the paper. Take everything from “Out” and put it where it needs to go. Examine “Pending.” What been handled and needs to be filed? What will you work with tomorrow?
  • Pocket memo pad. I’ve carried this gem since my early 20s. It’s a great place to trap ideas on the fly. Take the random notes you jotted and enter the information where it belongs: calendar, task list, contacts, digital notes app, etc. As digital as I am, there are times when the easiest thing is to pull out that memo pad and make a quick note. During the day, I slide receipts from meals, etc. inside one of the memo pad’s pockets.
Memo book
Memo Pad (Click to learn more)
  • Journal. A paper journal is a great place to trap notes from phone calls and meetings. A single meeting generates future appointments, along with to-dos and the reference information you will need later. Take a few minutes to dissect the events and put them in the calendar and the to-dos for your task list. Within the calendar entry and task, you can reference today’s date so that you’ll have instant access to this set of notes.
Journal (Click to learn more)

Move to the digital

  • Empty your email Inbox. You don’t have to do everything embedded in those emails. What’s critical is that you make decisions about each one and put them where they need to go. Here’s help.
  • Clear the Evernote Inbox. I’m a huge Evernote fan (and Evernote Certified Consultant). Having an “Inbox” notebook is a great way to trap new information in one place.
  • Clear voicemail. Never leave the red light blinking nor leave information you’ll need in a voicemail. Listen with pen & paper (or keyboard) at hand to trap the relevant information. Transfer any appointment to the calendar and to-dos to the task list. Record reference information in paper journal or digital tool like Evernote. 
  • Clear your computer desktop. The desktop is a great destination for downloaded files and new creations. At the end of the day, file the items where they need to go.
  • Review your task list Inbox. Many digital task lists also have an Inbox. Any newly-added task appears there. Look at what has arrived during the day. Reword tasks as necessary so they are clear and easy to do. If the task is really a multi-step project, break it down and identify the individual next steps. Give every task a date representing when you want to see it again. I also give mine a priority that designates whether I want to see that task in the morning, afternoon, or evening.

Cluttered desks and overflowing inboxes are the results of little decisions left unmade. During this process, you’re asking these questions:

  1. What is this?
  2. What does it mean to me?
  3. When do I want to see it again?

This session is not the time to “do” the work. It’s the time to make decisions about how your commitments fit together. You’ll decide how best to schedule them across the coming days. The process goes quickly. It’s also happening at a time of day when your energy is generally low. You’re still able to be productive and set yourself up for a successful tomorrow. You’ll start tomorrow knowing exactly what to tackle first.

Organize tomorrow

Tickler File. Pull tomorrow’s file. Take care of anything that can be handled quickly, such as placing items in outgoing mail. Add any task to your task list based on what has appeared in the file. Arrange items in the order you plan to handle them. Place the stack in “Pending.” If your first task tomorrow relates to any paperwork, leave it in the center of your desk where it will be the first thing you see in the morning.

Tickler File (Click to learn more)

Organize the Task List. Look at what tasks remain undone. Change the date on any task that needs to be moved to the future. Reword any task that is “fuzzy.” Look at the tasks dated for tomorrow. Adjust the dates of any that need to be postponed. Adjust the Priority of tasks so they appear at the right time of the day: Medium priority = Morning ; Low priority = Afternoon; No priority = Evening (Assumes your task list allows for 4 levels of priority.)

Select the “Fab 5.” If you could only get 5 things done tomorrow, what would they be? Consider items that “must” be done because of a deadline. Consider items for which there would be a negative consequence if they were not done. Consider items that would move forward an important goal. Assign “High Priority” to these items. Be sure you have your digital task list sorted so that you can view all items for today together. Within the day, you want items sorted by Priority. Throughout the day, the “Fab 5” will remain at the top of the list. After finishing the “Fab 5,” you may move other tasks to “High Priority.”

“Tomorrow Starts Today” summary

  1. Clear the paper and any other physical items from your desk.
  2. Clear the Inbox, Outbox, and Pending.
  3. Clear your pocket memo pad of notes and receipts.
  4. Dissect notes from your journal.
  5. Empty your email Inbox.
  6. Clear the Evernote Inbox.
  7. Clear voicemail.
  8. Clear your computer desktop.
  9. Review your task list Inbox.
  10. Pull tomorrow’s Tickler File.
  11. Organize the Task List.
  12. Select the “Fab 5” for tomorrow.

And one more thing…As the day ends, answer this question: “What did I do to make today count?”  Keep the answer in your calendar, a digital document, or whatever is convenient. It’s the most important question you’ll answer all day.